I have come to executive coaching quite late in my career. I think there are two pathways that have led me to it.
The first of these is a set of very different work relationships with individuals that I have had who are working hard to make themselves effective in carrying out difficult tasks.
In 1972 I started to teach social science undergraduates at Warwick University. Within a couple of years I realised that I enjoyed large group teaching – lectures- and enjoyed getting across complex ideas in large lecture halls. You could touch the intellect and emotions of quite large numbers of people and move them forward. Even though I enjoyed this, I intellectually knew that this was a poor way for people to learn things. Whilst Warwick University did not follow the Oxbridge system, we did have a dozen or so personal tutees. Fairly quickly, because of my own background, I started to get tutees that were not only new to Universities themselves but none of whose family had ever been there. For some of these people the nature of institution was totally alien and they had a tough time developing their own way of learning in this very odd environment. Most of these were mature working class students who had selected social sciences to help them make sense of their world.
This meant that I had to not only help them to learn a subject but help them to learn to learn in this very odd institution (where in fact I did not feel at all at home myself. This led to a lot of individual work about blockages to learning. Later on in my university teaching career I helped to develop access courses where men and women without A levels from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds were studying for professional qualifications. Again, uncovering the blockages to learning was important.
At both Warwick and at the Polytechnic of North London, I was teaching social workers. Social work education contains a lot of practice and much of that practice as with the job itself can be really quite tough for the individual social worker. Social workers have developed the experience of supervision to help case workers work with the difficult emotional load of some of these painful human experiences. This involves the case worker shaping some of their experiences of practice with the supervisor. Supervision is clearly a particular and focussed form of coaching.
Later on I became a manager in public service and individual managers underneath me all required individual attention to help them carry out their own work and the work of the organisation. Very quickly I learnt that an hour a week with my direct reports working through their experiences and their problems would be really well worth it in terms
All of these experiences underlined the importance of a one to one relationship and how that could unlock some barriers to reaching full potential.
Second and alongside these experiences most of my working life has been trying to develop and organise change. Sometimes these were small changes within organisations and sometimes they were part of quite big historical and political changes. Most of my working life has been about understanding history and the political context within which these changes were trying to become real. As always with change you win some and you lose some. The 1980s was not an easy time to be developing change from the left, but it doesn’t mean that you let the context stop you in your tracks.
So a lot of my life has been trying to construct quite big changes with big structures and politics. My time as a senior manager, as a special adviser and as a consultant has always seen me struggling with others to fashion big changes. What is obvious as you deal with history is that it too is made by individuals. Sometimes history does not get made because individuals who could make it simply don’t feel powerful or strong enough to do it. Therefore it has become clear that the quite big changes that many leaders may want to develop with their organisations sometimes don’t happen because the individual leaders themselves cannot reach their full potential. Many leaders need some individual help to be able to shape the big changes that they want to develop.
So whilst a lot of my career in developing policy, managing large organisations and the politics of change from the left looks like big structural things, they have also involved lots and lots of individual listening and discussions.
That’s why it seemed like a good idea to study and develop my skill as an executive. That is why I went to the School of Coaching in 2008 to learn the skills of executive coaching under the excellent Myles Downey. It fits alongside changes to structures as a part of that wider change.
My coaching philosophy has been developed in that context.
The challenge of leadership in the current context is to ensure that our organisations can keep up with and then move to the front of, the accelerated speed of change that our context demands. Many leaders fail to reach their full leadership potential because of a range of different interferences either within themselves or their past. This interference limits their power both in their organisation and its context. The aim of the coaching relationship must be to unlock this greater potential and encourage the leader’s transformational capacity in this world of accelerated change.
This is primarily achieved by exploring the coachees own understanding of their leadership experiences and challenges. Since each leader experiences the interference that holds them back in a different way, with different sets of capacity potentially inside of them, the coach must work to the coachees’ experience. This must be explored and understood in depth and then challenged to develop this greater capacity in the real context of leading their organisations.
People only change when their awareness is raised, which makes one of the primary aims of coaching to raise the coachees’ awareness. An unblocking of greater awareness of both self and context provides the coachee with the power to lead greater change. Coaching can help the leader possess transformational leadership through unlocking their capability and its interaction with a more intense understanding of the context within which they lead.